Unpopular opinion time: I absolutely love writing queries. I love the challenge of summing up a 70,000 word manuscript in a way that makes sense and entices people to read it.
Because the deadline for submitting to Author Mentor Match is coming up this week (5 days!), I thought I'd share my top tips for writing a query as well as the query that got me my agent.
Elements of a Successful Query
Tell us about the character. Who are they? What makes them interesting? Why would we want to spend 300+ pages with them? For YA and MG this should include the character's age.
Set up the main conflict.
Tell us the choice the character has to make.
Tell us the stakes. This could be the consequences of those choices or what happens if the main character fails. The stakes should be personal to the character, not simply "the world will end."
My Top Tips
Read A LOT of queries. I recommend sites like Query Shark and Evil Editor. Both have years of archives to go through and writers often return with revised queries so you can see how they apply the critiques.
Write the query first. Try writing the query before you write the manuscript. Writing the query first will help you identify the book's core conflict. Often query problems turn out to be weaknesses within the manuscript. Treat this query as a living document and continue to tweak it as you write.
Comps. Comps are other books, movies, TV shows, songs, or any other media that you can compare your book to and give the reader an idea of what it's about. I believe that if you include comps at least one should be a book and it should be relatively recent (unless your manuscript is a retelling). A common piece of advice is to not comp your book to blockbusters in your genre. I'd say when in doubt, don't include them.
Personalization. Some people suggest personalizing your query to the agent you're sending it to by telling them why you're querying them specifically. For example, my agent explicitly stated that she was looking for stories about trans characters so I mentioned that upfront. Feel free to include personalization, but make sure that it's genuine and specific. For example, it's not personalization if you tell a YA agent that you're querying them because they accept YA. If you're submitting to Author Mentor Match there won't be an opportunity to personalize your query.
Character soup. There are exceptions, but I feel like queries should have no more than three named characters. More than that and you risk major confusion.
No stakes. We're left with a "so what" feeling at the end. This could be because there are no stakes, vague stakes, or impersonal stakes.
Too complicated. Remember that we haven't read your story so you need to strike a balance between telling us enough backstory so that we're not lost, while not bogging us down with too much of it.
My Ultimate Query Rule
Specificity. Every sentence should feel like it belongs to your book and your book alone. If you can change a character's name and the sentence would describe another book, you're not there yet. You don't have a lot of space in a query (around 250-300 words), so being as specific as possible goes a long way in showing agents what makes your book special.
My Query for The Passing Playbook
Without further ado, here's the query for The Passing Playbook. I took out the housekeeping paragraph at the beginning and the bio paragraph at the end. It's also not entirely accurate since I made quite a few revisions to the book with my editor.
* TW: CW: transphobia *
Fifteen-year-old Spencer Harris is a proud blerd (black nerd), an awesome big brother, and a David Beckham in training. He’s also transgender, but that doesn’t define him.
After a year of getting beaten up in bathrooms and being called he-she, he gets a fresh start at The Oakley School, where nobody knows he’s trans. There, he joins the boys’ soccer team, whose championship dreams were crushed at state semifinals last season. With his ability to conjure up goals from nothing, Spencer sets his team on the path to becoming state champs.
But then Coach benches him, saying the league won’t let him play because of the “F” on his birth certificate. Spencer could fight the ruling, but that would mean coming out to everyone. Everyone includes Justice, the preacher’s son, who argues about how old the earth is in science. Justice, who makes Spencer’s heart pound faster than if he’d just played the full 90 minutes. Justice, who would never speak to Spencer again if he found out he was transgender.
From the bench, Spencer watches his team’s chances at winning championships slip further away. Now he must choose between the safety of being stealth and his love for the beautiful game.
And just for fun, here's the current description on Goodreads for comparison. Please note that authors don't write the book description.
Fifteen-year-old Spencer Harris is a proud nerd, an awesome big brother and a Messi-in-training. He's also transgender. After transitioning at his old school leads to a year of bullying, Spencer gets a fresh start at Oakley, the most liberal private school in Ohio.
At Oakley, Spencer seems to have it all: more accepting classmates, a decent shot at a starting position on the boy's soccer team, great new friends, and maybe even something more than friendship with one of his teammates. The problem is, no one at Oakley knows Spencer is trans - he's passing.
So when a discriminatory law forces Spencer's coach to bench him after he discovers the 'F' on Spencer's birth certificate, Spencer has to make a choice: cheer his team on from the sidelines or publicly fight for his right to play, even if it means coming out to everyone - including the guy he's falling for.
So there you have it! Come back next week where I'm going to show you how I organize my writing life.
And good luck to everyone applying to AMM! Check out my wish list here!